BC Lions loose and relaxed before big game
Published Sunday, November 27, 2011 7:53PM PST Last Updated Saturday, May 19, 2012 3:41AM PDT
The last time the BC Lions won a Grey Cup, Andrew Harris watched shivering in the stands.
The 2006 CFL championship was played in Harris' hometown of Winnipeg on a bitterly cold day that saw the Lions beat Montreal 25-14.
"It was freezing," the 24-year-old Lions running back said Saturday, shaking with the memory. "I was on the metal bleachers they brought in. The wind was hitting our faces like crazy."
Harris won't have to worry about the weather when the Lions play the Winnipeg Blue Bombers in Sunday's Grey Cup. The roof will be closed on BC Place Stadium and Harris plans to keep warm by making plays out of the Lions backfield.
"I need to make an impact," said Harris, who rushed for 395 yards and seven touchdowns this year.
"Whether it's blocking, running the ball, catching it in the back field, I need to be an impact player. I have been doing that the last couple of games. I need to continue to do that, come focused and ready to play."
The Lions had a loose, relaxed final practice, even though security staff refused to let several players enter the building when they arrived early.
There was laughter on the field when veteran slotback Geroy Simon danced in the middle of a circle of players. Defensive back Tad Kornegay wore his West Division champion hat with the tag still attached. Veteran kicker Paul McCallum, who at 41 is the CFL's oldest player, calmly hit short field-goal attempts.
The Lions have 11 veterans who hoisted the Grey Cup in 2006, plus six players who have won titles on other teams.
For Harris, playing in his first Grey Cup is special.
"It's always been a dream, especially being a Canadian kid," he said. "A lot of Canadians are hockey guys. The guys that are football guys, this is our biggest game. It's a lot of pride playing in this game."
B.C. comes into the game heavy favourites over the Bombers. It's been a roller-coaster season for a team that dropped to 1-6 after a 30-17 loss to Winnipeg in early August.
"We came from the bottom," said Simon, who at 36 was the league's second-leading receiver with 1,350 yards and eight touchdowns on 84 catches.
"I don't think a lot of teams get to rock bottom and still get to the Grey Cup. We were there. We turned it around. It has been a long journey. It will be very special."
The Lions won 10 of their next 11 games to finish first in the West with an 11-7 record. B.C. then defeated the Edmonton Eskimos 40-23 in last weekend's West Final to become the first team since the 2008 Montreal Alouettes to play in a Grey Cup at home.
Centre Angus Reid said the Lions maintained their unity even when many fans were tearing the team taken apart.
"We never looked outside of the room," said Reid, who grew up in Vancouver. "We kept looking at ourselves, saying we have to pull it together.
"We didn't point fingers. We didn't cannibalize each other to save jobs, throw each other under the bus."
Reid laughed when asked about the distractions of Grey Cup week, especially for a team playing at home.
"Getting out to an 0-5 start? Dealing with that?" he snorted.
"Dealing with this is not a big deal. This is easy. We are just preparing to win."
Lions quarterback Travis Lulay wore a big smile during practice. Afterwards he tossed footballs to some children on the sidelines.
"I think the team is in a pretty good space," said Lulay, who was named the CFL's most outstanding player earlier in the week. "The guys are a good mix of understanding the opportunity and still feeling fairly relaxed.
"On this team there are a lot of guys who have played in these games. It's good to have those teammates who can bring you back to reality and let you know it is another football game."
After struggling early in the season, Lulay began proving why he's the best young quarterback in the league. He has a strong arm, fast feet and a keen mind excited to learn about the game.
For Lulay, Saturday was the calm before the storm.
"Right now I feel pretty good like I did before any big game over the last few weeks," said the 28-year-old from Salem, Ore.
"There will be butterflies in the morning. That's just part of it. Once you get into the game, get hit once or throw a couple of passes, I'll settle in. I am confident once the game gets going it will be a football game."
The last team to win a Grey Cup playing at home was the 1994 Lions, who beat Baltimore 26-23.
For B.C., winning this year's title would be the final step in a long journey.
It would also give the city of Vancouver a chance to celebrate a championship and maybe erase some of the embarrassment after the riot the erupted in June following the Canucks' Game 7 loss in the Stanley Cup final.
Lions coach and general manager Wally Buono said the purpose of the game is to draw fans together.
"Sports, in my mind, is for a community, a province, a country to get behind it," said Buono, who has hinted he may step down as coach.
"Win or lose there is no reason ever for what happened. You lose, it's disappointing. I know fans are quite emotional, quite involved. But at the end of the day it's entertainment."